17 Dec Where Love Rejoices
It wasn’t my best work. Loosely stacked in three-line stanzas, any punctuation replaced by large toothless gaps between the clauses, the poem was as awkward as it was exuberant. My lecturer’s question was gently put but pointed enough: “John,” he said, “Don’t you think you can have too much joy?” Still satisfied with my clever smuggling into the poem of biblical references and pleased about finding a use for those lovely words “deference” and “aubade”, I was hurt. Sure, I’d used the actual word “joy” liberally—six times in just eight lines—but this was a poem about getting out of bed to greet the morning! Too much joy? How sad.
But that’s just the rub, isn’t it? The morning might be bright and dew kissed, but meaningful response to the human predicament requires more than exuberant reiteration of the word “joy”. And in these times, celebration in general has to give an account of itself: with such a troubling year stacked behind us and with COVID traffic lights ahead, our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany celebrations sit awkwardly amid the present circumstance. There’s something at odds with the moment about insisting on joy and celebration. The question is perhaps quietly voiced but direct: “Don’t you think you can have too much joy?” With all that has gone on and all that the world faces at present, how can we go about singing and speechifying, dancing and giving and feasting and resting and joying in the messiah’s coming?
Seems like Christmas this year is, in any case, a muted affair, taken for granted and decidedly low key. Santa’s pulled his parades. The congregations of local shopping malls are inconstant in their devotion, now pushing toward the shop counters, now backsliding off home away from all the crowds. Even conversation is indistinct, hard of hearing: “Sorry, what was that?”, we ask each other, muffled behind our masks. We take the season for granted, of course: we deserve a break, a breather—we made it to Christmas. Distancing our way around the shop, we hum to ourselves and everyone else: Ce-le-brate good times. Come on. But you’d better hum quietly: as the traffic lights go through their motions and COVID-19 slips among us, no neighbourly minded person can set aside the knowledge of the moment. So is it to be Christmas on the down low, maybe Christmas as quiet escapism or as going through the motions? Mind that joy now.
I suspect it’s because of the moment that I’ve found myself spending time reading an old friend. In the times I’ve spent with him, he’s been locked alone in a Berlin prison cell in 1943, writing letters to his parents and to close friends. It’s not full conversation yet (I look forward to that!), but his words have been an encouragement. Here’s a Christian, a pastor, imprisoned in part for his faith, in the midst of dire days for all, when food was becoming scarce and, each night, death fell from the sky like rain. And now, as he makes the best of things in his cell, Advent approaches, Christmas comes around again. What is it Dietrich Bonhoeffer will have to say about rejoicing, about celebration? Will public scruple and internalised censure temper any seasonal exuberance? Will he remain sober (not too joyful, now) or will he lose his head and devour the parcel sent by his family to alleviate the tension between air raids? He’s well aware of the challenge: “What man is there among us,” Bonhoeffer writes, “who can give himself with an easy conscience to the cultivation of music, friendship, games or happiness?”
Reading between the lines of his letters, Bonhoeffer’s response is to celebrate as fully as circumstances allow and to do so with deepening understanding. I imagine him lingering over the Scriptures in an awareness of the communion of saints, remembering St Paul’s irrepressible encouragement from his Roman prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) And, as I think of Bonhoeffer remembering Paul, Eugene Peterson eyeballs me: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!” (Phil 4:4, The Message). Dietrich picks up his pen: “For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell,” he writes to his parents! “I dare say it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name.”
“Sincerity” is on point. There is something about celebration—real rejoicing—that you just can’t fake. Where celebration is only icing thick, where it is all bunting and no sky, all dress-ups and no delighting, celebration’s real character—its caper and nobility and singing rightness—is revealed by such forced or escapist festivities. “[A]ll that survives of the feast is its name.” Governments may mandate certain days of festival, the latest bevy of divas may rehash (again) the seasonal classics, the table may be groaning with food and drink, and the Christmas crackers this year may contain genuinely funny jokes, but such things only become celebration when they are restored to the deep truth of life. And becoming playfully ironic about Christmas won’t do as a way to restore meaning because true celebration is inherently meaningful. As a young neo-pagan friend remarked to me on seeing Christians worship: “I had forgotten that people could mean what they say.” Where Christmas is concerned, we dare not go through the motions nor mark our feast in name only; nor can we solve the problem of sincere celebration at the end of a challenging year by turning it into indulgence, a dissolute pressure valve. To celebrate requires we learn over again how to be people who mean—who live—what we say.
What, then, is the deep posture and conviction revealed in true celebration? Festival is human. Throughout history, even in great poverty, the art of celebration persists as a matter of conviction and often of worship. Though the objects of worship may be unworthy or evil, a delighting in creation rather than the Creator, such festivals underscore the general sense that celebration arises out of some deep vision of life as a good thing. As philosopher Joseph Pieper puts it, celebration means “to live out, for some special occassion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole”; indeed, he argues, celebration arises out of the affirmation that “at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.” Thus, in celebration, work—which is the means of securing our needs—is suspended; even though it costs us the opportunity to earn more, we cease work in an affirmation that life is, deep down, gifted to us. We double down on this conviction in feasting and festival: where in normal days we might be frugal and careful, in festival, the table groans and the drink flows. And in festival, too, this overflow is social and communal. The assent to life’s gift—a gift perhaps given by a good God—overflows in generosity to others, to strangers, and to those in need. Such things are common to celebration generally; for example, they mark festivals associated with annual cycles of planting, tending, reaping, and harvesting. However partial or distorted, in celebration, those who love life and who love the source of life delight in the gifts that they receive. As St John Chrysostum puts it, “ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivas”: “where love rejoices, there is festivity”.
But this sketch cannot account for the scandal of Jewish and Christian celebration, for the people of God insist on celebration in the most unlikely circumstances. Even before Israel are delivered from Egypt, even before God’s liberating judgement passes over the houses of his people, they celebrate the Passover feast, rejoicing in anticipation of what ever since has been celebrated as proof of God’s goodness (Ex 12). The tithes commanded by God are not only to support the priest–tribe of Levites and for support of the most vulnerable in Israel but are also so that everyone may eat and drink with joy in the presence of God (Dt 14:22ff)! Much later, returning from exile, the people of God gather to restore Jerusalem. Cut to the quick by Ezra’s reading of the Torah, they weep. When they returned, the temple—the walls of the city—had been in ruins and their own lives in disarray; as the law is read, the understanding sinks in: so much has been forgotten, so much needs restoration. But Nehemiah’s vision runs deeper, right down to the heart of things: “Do not mourn or weep,” he tells them. “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:9–10). The people gather and sing and feast and talk and laugh and rejoice in the midst of things, not only because God has brought them out of exile but more because it is now clear how completely Israel lives by God’s gracious gift.
This deep understanding is also at work in the prophecies of Habbakkuk. On the face of it, however, his blunt naming of his circumstances seems a prelude to celebration that can only be an act of stoic will:
Though the fig tree does not bud,
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour (Hab 3:17–18).
With the failure of crop upon crop, the poem reads like a recipe for future famine—it looks ahead and sees hunger and all that comes with it. So how are we to hear that “Yet”? After all, there is a species of Christian celebration, which, while not sentimental about circumstances, nevertheless seeks to rise above them—to take up a posture of joy that is stoically detached from creaturely life and that sets its mind on things above in an effort of transcendental emotion.
So we have to ask: what, then, is the meaning of this? Why insist on celebration? Why is it that the people of God persist in their rejoicing even in grim times? Why is it Paul and Silas sing in prison, with the flesh of their backs raw and their feet in the stocks (Acts 16)? Celebration is, as we’ve noted, hard to fake. And it arises, as we’ve affirmed, from the deepest understanding—a response to what my colleague Andrew Shamy calls “the tremendous heart of things”. So if the heart of things is, let’s say, a weary world that persists by divine life-support, a world of crop failures and COVID-19, of prison cells and plague, and if our hope is a happy hereafter, then the most fitting celebration would indeed be stoic. We would solemnly remember God’s been good in the past, and, then, in an act of staunch trust and defiance, we would sing songs about the hope that one day we get to fly away from all this. That is: celebration reveals what we believe to be deeply true about the world. Again, if our field of vision is dominated by the poisonous wisdom of the newsfeed and if our basic conviction is that life under the sun is—medical advances aside—nasty, brutish, and short, then we might decide to pass by any stoic efforts of joy and cut straight to celebration as escape. The tremendous heart of things is, we decide, as it ever was: there is nothing new under the sun. There is no gift of life but only survival. There is no giver but only existence. There is only one or other kind of prison and no door. Whatever this impulse of joy is, it is, at best, sweet momentary relief from the unbearable ordinary.
Such response, Dietrich would remind us, is common enough as evident in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2021 as in Tegel Prison, Berlin, in 1943. But this is not the heart of things. Habbakkuk ignores such angst. Neither despairing of God nor of his good world, the prophet exults: “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” And convinced of God’s faithfulness and his power to renew creation, he is bold to pray for more, for the fulness that his own celebrations anticipate:
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.
Renew them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy (Hab 3:2).
The imprisoned creation longs for a new thing, a renewal of that gift, which, in the beginning, all creation lived by—a renewal of life lived in the light of God’s mercy and by his loving power. There is a gift and a Giver; there is a door and a way. And all of Israel’s celebrations are anticipations of these. “See,” says the Lord through his servant Isaiah, “I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” (Is 43:19).
What is this new thing God does? And how new is it? Is the new thing a grand spiritual evacuation plan with faith the boarding pass to a better place? Is it only making good what is broken, only a prison door unlocked? How new is this, really? Here’s how new:
The virgin will be with child
and will give birth to a son
and will call him Immanuel (Is 7:14).
What shall we make of the Church’s witness to the virgin birth, the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth was begotten of God in the womb of Mary, an unmarried teenager who had not had sexual intercourse? To modern, over-sexualised ears, the doctrine engenders some unease, the thought, perhaps, that God is particularly fixated with a virginal state, or that God regretted the decision to make sex in the first place. But get snagged on such hang-ups and you’ll miss the real occasion for joy: ever since the birth of Cain, any new life has come by the way of a nature, which, through sin and evil, turns habitually against God. Although God in his goodness sustains our fallen world, any newness under the sun is not truly new, each bright and dew-kissed morning is, in some sense, a rerun, and every birth—each one redolent with God’s gift and mercy—is shadowed by the knowledge of the death to come. The history of Israel bears witness to extraordinary moments of newness—their redemption out of Egypt, manna in the desert, the presence of the Lord in cloud and fire, the gift of the law—but these are moments and not sustained in the lives of those who received them. A complete renewal—“a new covenant”—is needed, a new state of affairs where creation lives by God’s redeeming word, where the lives of women and men are brilliant with the truth and goodness and beauty of the Lord (Jer 31:31–34).
Instead of the same old newness of another natural conception, another natural birth, now here is a new, never before thing: a life wholly of God, wholly human, the creating Word himself made flesh. And with this, creation is made new on utterly new terms, free from the birth of Cain. But this is not natural, the skeptics say, but this is extra-ordinary, without historical precedent! Exactly, rejoices the Church. God has done a new thing, given new life: in this unprecedented virgin birth, here is our truly human, truly whole life. “Lo,” the Church sings, “He abhors not the virgin’s womb!” That is, God did not leave creation condemned to a closed cycle of birth and death but assumed creaturely life in such a way that—at its origin—that life was new. And there’s more we celebrate! The renewal of creation begun in Mary’s womb has overflowed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to the gift of the Spirit of Life within human beings. The Word, who was at the beginning, with God, and very God, through whom all things were made, himself became flesh, tabernacling among us full of grace and truth (John 1:1–4, 14). And this same new reality unfolds here and now among us: “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (Jn 1:12–13). This is no salvation in memory only; it is a matter for you and me of now, of today:
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in. (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”)
Suddenly, we remember the words of God in Revelation 21:5: “I am making everything new!”, and, in prison cell or COVID-19 pandemic, our understanding begins to deepen: the great new thing has begun in our midst. The virgin has given birth to a son, and already we find—by the power of God’s life-giving Spirit—God, Immanuel, is with us.
Then all the people went away to eat and drink,
to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy,
because they now understood the words
that had been made known to them.
This, then, is the conviction that fires our vital art of celebration. This is the deepening understanding of Christmas, settling over us like a sweet morning in early summer. This is the essence of our festivity, our sincere affirmation: the Word through whom—and for whom—this entire good world was made has stepped down into our present darkness to become indeed “the first-born over all creation” (Col 1:15). Through him, God has put his breath within us, a kindling of light in earnest of the resurrection dawn to come (Gal 4:6–7). God is making everything new. At this, our love rejoices for “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28).
How ridiculous, how pinched and miserly our Christmas spending obsessions can seem in light of God’s generosity! How cramped our concern with the closed family circle in light of his redemptive purposes. How wasted and sad the shopping mall muzak that obscures the song of creation. Celebrating Christmas via such things is, at best, like catching tantalising smells of rich food just out of the oven and convincing oneself that you’ve enjoyed a five-course feast. But the true table has already been set, and the Lord is calling us to a better meal, and to true satisfaction and fellowship. And even in the midst of darkened and difficult times, we can do so with simplicity of heart. Writing from his prison cell, Bonhoeffer concludes it is the Christian who—even in the midst of food shortages and air raids and terror—can celebrate and live with an easy conscience. As real and troubling as our circumstances can be, all dark and evil things have been made to stand in the light of the incarnation, the renewal—wholly God’s—of creation from within. This is the restoration that unfolds in the life of the Word made Flesh, Jesus born of Mary, crucified and killed under Pontius Pilate, and raised victorious over death by God. Whatever the circumstances, the Church continues to rejoice, taking up the words of the priest Zechariah’s song:
the rising sun will come to us
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet
into the path of peace.
And so, if ever there was an occasion to celebrate with newness and with extraordinary festival, it is now. If ever there was a time and place for creative, open-table feasting, it is here—and, like Israel, we “send some to those who have nothing prepared” (Neh 8:10). Now is the time for lavish generosity, giving to one another signs of God’s gift. However you feel about dancing or singing, if ever there was a time to dance, if ever there was a time to sing, it is now. Now is the time for an absurdity of light—candles and twinkles and bonfires and early morning missions to catch the first rays of the sun. If ever there was occasion for celebration, it is now!
How then will you prepare yourself to celebrate? It is, after all, an art, something we practice with understanding and determination as well as with lightness and ease. Just as a workaholic life can make our sabbath practice seem absurd, so our freedom to celebrate Christmas with sincerity and simplicity of heart is determined in part by our everyday habits and spiritual posture. Rejoice always, writes Paul in his cell. But he does not stop here. “Let your gentleness be evident to all”—in other words, decide to conduct yourself peaceably with others in light of the way of Jesus (Phil 4:5; cf. Phil 2:5–11). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil 4:6). Nagging anxiety takes the edge off any celebration, causing us to take the route of escape, repurposing celebration as an anesthetic for our anxieties. Better rather to drag the worries out into the light: write them down and then hand that list over to God. To practice such discipline of faith is not merely to manage one’s feelings, it is to agree to live in light of what is deeply true about the world and about your life before God (“your Father knows what you need”: Mt 6:8). Paul goes even further. He knows that what we dwell on—what we fill our eyes and ears and hearts with—shapes our trust and our rejoicing. And so, finally,
whatever is true
whatever is noble
whatever is right
whatever is pure
whatever is lovely
whatever is admirable
—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
In these mundane and everyday ways, we prepare for God’s festival, choosing with discipline and joy to align our lives with the deep reality of things. In the final week before Christmas, what will preoccupy your thoughts? What will guide your priorities? Who will you seek to bless? What might you need to turn away from in order to celebrate with complete trust? What spiritual “clothes” will you get ready to mark this year’s celebration? As you prepare for Christmas this week, ponder the wisdom of Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae and let the Lord ready you for this, his extraordinary festival, where love rejoices:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves
with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Bear with each other and forgive one another
if any of you has a grievance against someone.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
since as members of one body you were called to peace.
And be thankful.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly
as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom
through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit,
singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed,
do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:12–17)
(Image: By Tim Marshall, CC Zero)